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Danny Spooner

Everyone knew and loved Danny, a legend of the Australian folk world for more than 50 years since he arrived in Melbourne in 1962. I first met him in Darwin in the early 1980s. Characteristically he asked me, very much a beginner (a mature beginner!) on the folk scene then, to sing and play the concertina for him. Fellow Londoners, he grew up in the East End, real Cockney London, while I came from the outer suburbs.

Danny told us of singing at home with his family in days before television or telephone, and particularly of his Irish grandmother singing old ballads and of his father telling stories in their air-raid shelter during the London Blitz. He told us, too, about his first job working on a tug boat on the river Thames, starting work at 13 years old and, as he also told us, he grew two years older in 100 yards when he discovered the minimum age was 15! He completed an apprenticeship as a waterman and lighterman, eventually becoming a trawler skipper. These early years explain his special love of maritime songs and all songs of working life. He worked in many jobs in Australia, experiences which gave him empathy with ordinary working people. He sang their songs because he had lived their lives. Later, he gained a degree at Melbourne University and worked as a high school teacher and university lecturer. He taught English, History and Philosophy and used and sang folk songs as part of his teaching.

His first skipper was Bob Roberts, another legendary singer and carrier of songs and stories, who was later discovered and recorded by the folk revival. Bob taught Danny songs of all kinds, but more than that, he made him join three libraries and encouraged him to seek out the history of the songs and the circumstances of their creation. Danny carried this enthusiasm throughout his singing life when he performed at festivals, concerts and sessions. He not only sang the songs, he also told us how they were created. Danny's many workshops at festivals throughout Australia were all about the people who created the songs, the world they lived in, the world of those songs, the joys and especially the hardships of the people's lives. He put his songs into context and gave extra meaning to them.

Danny did not just sing to us, he gave us an appreciation of the world of the songs. His voice, honed and crafted over the years, had a quality that commanded attention and carried through the largest hall or over the noisiest pub scene. He had a wonderful way of making the audience part of the performance, always encouraging us to sing along with him. He was the most committed, passionate and approachable of singers. Always ready to share, he would sing anywhere, any time. To him, as he often said, the song was important, not the singer, who he saw as a carrier of the tradition. The song sang him, he once said.

Often referred to as a “walking encyclopaedia of folk song”, he seemed to know almost every song there was, whether English, Irish, Scottish, Australian or American, traditional and newly composed songs alike. His website, listing all the workshops he researched and created, indicates the range of his interests.

At Frank Traynor's club in Melbourne, he met the singers of the early folk revival in Australia - Brian Mooney, Martyn Wyndham-Read, Margret Roadnight, David Lumsden and many others - and was soon a regular singer at the club. Later when living in Geelong, Danny was involved in theatre life as singer, actor and musical advisor in several productions.

Retirement brought greater opportunities for singing, research and touring and he regularly toured Britain, Europe and the United States, singing and presenting workshops at clubs and festivals. In 2007, he toured Australia singing folk songs with Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

I have organised many themed sessions at Tasmanian festivals and Danny was always the first I called on to help. He always did, of course, and had plenty of songs, knowledge and enthusiasm to share. He sang at Tasmanian festivals most years. It was always Danny who closed the final concert at the Tamar Valley Festival, leading all the other performers and the audience and finishing with multiple choruses of Rolling Home. He was there as usual this year and, although sick, he still carried us through those final choruses.

Danny passed away in March 2017 and is buried near Daylesford in Victoria where he lived. He received the Australian National Folk Festival's Lifetime Achievement Award last year and at this year's festival at Easter, a Very Special Tribute concert was organised featuring many of his singing friends.

There was never anyone like him and those who knew him will never forget him. Farewell Danny. Thank you for all those wonderful moments for many years.

Michael Manhire